working memory capacity

How to test for music skills

In a new article I evaluate a recently developed test for music listening skills. To my great surprise the test behaves very well. This could open the path to better understand the psychology underlying music listening. Why am I surprised?

I got my first taste of how difficult it is to replicate published scientific results during my very first empirical study as an undergraduate (eventually published as Kunert & Scheepers, 2014). Back then, I used a 25 minute long dyslexia screening test to distinguish dyslexic participants from non-dyslexic participants (the Lucid Adult Dyslexia Screener). Even though previous studies had suggested an excellent sensitivity (identifying actually dyslexic readers as dyslexic) of 90% and a moderate to excellent specificity (identifying actually non-dylexic readers as non-dyslexic) of 66% – 91% (Singleton et al., 2009; Nichols et al., 2009), my own values were worse at 61% sensitivity and 65% specificity. In other words, the dyslexia test only flagged someone with an official dyslexia diagnosis in 11/18 cases and only categorised someone without known reading problems as non-dyslexic in 13/20 cases. The dyslexia screener didn’t perform exactly as suggested by the published literature and I have been suspicious of ability tests every since.

Five years later I acquired data to look at how music can influence language processing (Kunert et al., 2016) and added a newly proposed music abilitily measure called PROMS (Law & Zentner, 2012) to the experimental sessions to see how bad it is. I really thought I would see the music listening ability scores derived from the PROMS to be conflated with things which on the face of it have little to do with music (digit span, i.e. the ability to repeat increasingly longer digit sequences), because previous music ability tests had that problem. Similarly, I expected people with better music training to not have that much better PROMS scores. In other words, I expected the PROMS to perform worse than suggested by the people who developed the test, in line with my negative experience with the dylexia screener.

It then came as a surprise to see that PROMS scores were hardly associated with the ability to repeat increasingly longer digit sequences (either in the same order, i.e. forward digit span, or in reverse order, i.e. backward digit span), see Figure 1A and 1B. This makes the PROMS scores surprisingly robust against variation in working memory, as you would expect from a good music ability test.


Figure 1. How the brief PROMS (vertical axis) correlates with various validity measures (horizontal axis). Each dot is one participant. Lines are best fit lines with equal weights for each participant (dark) or downweighting unusual participants (light). Inserted correlation values reflect dark line (Pearson r) or a rank-order equivalent of it which is robust to outliers (Spearman rho). Correlation values range from -1 to +1.

The second surprise came when musical training was actually associated with better music skill scores, as one would expect for a good test of music skills, see Figures 1C, 1D, 1E, and 1H. To top it of, the PROMS score was also correlated with the music task performance in the experiment looking at how language influences music processing. This association between the PROMS and musical task accuracy was visible in two independent samples, see Figures 1F and 1G, which is truly surprising because the music task targets harmonic music perception which is not directly tested by the PROMS.

To conclude, I can honestly recommend the PROMS to music researchers. To my surprise it is a good test which could truly tell us something about where music skills actually come from. I’m glad that this time I have been proven wrong regarding my suspicions about ability tests.

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Kunert R, & Scheepers C (2014). Speed and accuracy of dyslexic versus typical word recognition: an eye-movement investigation. Frontiers in psychology, 5 PMID: 25346708

Kunert R, Willems RM, & Hagoort P (2016). Language influences music harmony perception: effects of shared syntactic integration resources beyond attention. Royal Society open science, 3 (2) PMID: 26998339

Kunert R, Willems RM, & Hagoort P (2016). An Independent Psychometric Evaluation of the PROMS Measure of Music Perception Skills. PloS one, 11 (7) PMID: 27398805

Law LN, & Zentner M (2012). Assessing musical abilities objectively: construction and validation of the profile of music perception skills. PloS one, 7 (12) PMID: 23285071

Nichols SA, McLeod JS, Holder RL, & McLeod HS (2009). Screening for dyslexia, dyspraxia and Meares-Irlen syndrome in higher education. Dyslexia, 15 (1), 42-60 PMID: 19089876

Singleton, C., Horne, J., & Simmons, F. (2009). Computerised screening for dyslexia in adults Journal of Research in Reading, 32 (1), 137-152 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9817.2008.01386.x
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Memory training boosts IQ

Is the IQ set in stone once we hit adulthood? ‘Yes it is’ used to be the received wisdom. A new meta-analysis challenges this view and gives hope to all of us who feel that mother nature should have endowed us with more IQ points. But is the training worth it?

a perfectly realistic depiction of intelligence training

a perfectly realistic depiction of intelligence training

Intelligence increases in adults

I have previously blogged about intelligence training with music (here). Music lessons increase your intelligence by round about 3 IQ points. But this has only been shown to work in children. A new paper shows that adults can also improve their IQ. Jacky Au and colleagues make this point based on one big analysis incorporating 20 publications with over 1000 participans. People did a working memory exercice, i.e. they trained the bit of their mind that holds information online. How? They did the so-called n-back task over and over and over again. Rather than explain the n-back task here, I just invite you to watch the video.

Increasing memory, increasing intelligence

Of course you cannot change your intelligence if you only do the task once. However, once you do this task several times a week over several weeks, your performance should increase, which shows that you trained your working memory. However, you will also improve on seemingly unrelated IQ tests. The meta-analysis takes this as a sign that actual intelligence increases result from n-back training. Working memory training goes beyond improvements on working memory tests alone.

The catch

So, the training is effective. It increases your intelligence by three to four IQ points. But is it efficient? You have to train for around half an hour daily, over a month. Such a training regime will have a considerable impact on your life. Are three to four IQ points enough to compensate for that?

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Au, J., Sheehan, E., Tsai, N., Duncan, G., Buschkuehl, M., & Jaeggi, S. (2014). Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory: a meta-analysis Psychonomic Bulletin & Review DOI: 10.3758/s13423-014-0699-x

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Psychological principles as guidelines for effective PowerPoint presentations

A presentation using Powerpoint. Corporate pre...

How good can it get?

You probably wouldn’t have much difficulty if I asked you to imagine a bad PowerPoint presentation. Nowadays one sits through so many of them that confusing, boring or annoying slide shows are sometimes perceived as the norm rather than the exception. A research team from the universities of Stanford, Amsterdam and Harvard headed by Stephen Kosslyn explains how to do it better. In order to reap off the benefits and avoid the pitfalls of visual aids, presenters should think about avoiding weaknesses of human information processing and play on the strengths of such processing.

Kosslyn and colleagues see the task of the audience viewing a PowerPoint presentation as composed of three steps: a) information needs to be acquired, b) information needs to be processed, c) information needs to be connected to knowledge. They derive eight principles that a presenter should follow based on this analysis.
a) encoding, i.e. acquiring information and turning it into a usable form
1) Discriminability: make it easy for the audience to discriminate colours, letters, sizes, line orientations etc.
2) Perceptual Organisation: group things effectively in the visual space you’ve got
3) Salience: use large perceptual differences to guide attention to what is IMPORTANT
b) working memory: holding information in mind in order to integrate it online
4) Limited Capacity: understanding breaks down once too much information has to be retained
5) Informative Change: when something perceptual changes, this change has to mean something
c) accessing long term memory: connect the new information with knowledge in order to extract meaning.
6) Appropriate Knowledge: avoid as much novel concepts, jargon or symbols as possible
7) Compatibility: the meaning of a message needs to be compatible with its form
8) Relevance: provide neither too much nor too little information
These principles may look very obvious but they are frequently violated. From an internet sample of slide shows it became clear that on average a PowerPoint presentation violates six principles at least once. Some principles were nearly always ignored: 1) discriminability, 4) limited capacity, 5) informative change.
Now, one may argue that these principles are simply guidelines that lay people are unaware of. No wonder they get violated. However, in a subsequent laboratory experiment participants were 80% correct in choosing a non-violating slide and rejecting a bad one. Moreover, when asked to say why one slide was better, more than 80% of the correct choices were appropriately justified.
So, this study is about what one already knows but still ignores when designing a slide show. The authors use a backdrop of psychological literature to predict what sorts of principles should guide PowerPoint presentations. What they, unfortunately, fail to do is to empirically test each principle’s impact on presentation understanding and memory. As such, this study simply presents a set of guidelines, says that presentations usually violate guidelines and that most people are aware of these violations. How important the guidelines are to begin with remains unclear.
The main take-home message is that the more work a presenter does for his/her audience, the more the audience can tune into the content of the presentation. For my part I am always guided by a more memorable principle:
Look around the room and search for the newbie or the bored one or the least intelligent listener. S/he is your target audience.
For a complete list of useful rules which may help you and especially your audience, see the appendix of Kosslyn and colleagues’ paper.

Kosslyn S.M., Kievit R.A., Russell A.G., & Shephard J.M. (2012). PowerPoint® Presentation Flaws and Failures: A Psychological Analysis Front. Psychology, 3 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00230



1) Photo credit: Wikipedia